What Makes Fantasy Work, The Continuation Continued

One of the elements that good fantasy needs happens to be part of world building, and it’s one of the genre’s tropes. Fantasy needs magic. I’m using the term loosely. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or “other.”

In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish, and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.

I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandolf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.

The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides.

Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot is, Create conflict.

Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.

Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.

One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competiton? Why was he seeing such vivid visions of Voldemort? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.

Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.

There’s still more, I think, so I’ll tackle those last elements another time.

Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 2

So what keeps the reader reading beyond those early pages?

I mentioned engaging characters—ones that are interesting, well-drawn—but the truth is, good characters aren’t enough by themselves. These well-drawn characters must also do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through Christian fiction (what I’ve mostly read since becoming a full time writer hoping to publish with a Christian publishing house), I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to root for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin (or was it Merry) looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can root for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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Lewis and Tolkien on Fantasy – an Analysis

I just read an interesting article, “Smuggled Theology” by David C. Downing and R. W. Schlosser, discussing the differences in C.S. Lewis’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s views of fantasy, or as they would say, faerie stories. The most intriguing premise of the article is that their basic difference stems from their difference in theology.

Tolkien embraced the concept that the writer, and especially the fantasy writer, participated in sub-creation, the very essence of what it means to be made in the image of God. Lewis had a slightly different view on the subject:

C. S. Lewis apparently subscribed to Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and he recommended “On Fairy-Stories” to those who asked him about his own views on fantasy. (Glover 30, 37) Yet Lewis never took the idea of sub-creation as much to heart as Tolkien did, and Lewis’s own essay on the subject, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” strikes a rather different note.

This brief but illuminating essay begins by distinguishing two sides of the writer: the Author and the Man. (Lewis used the male gender to denote the general case, as was the usual practice in his time; I follow that convention in this paragraph summarizing his essay.) The Author simply writes to release a creative impulse. He begins with an idea or a compelling image “longing for a form” for some coherent expression. Soon, however, the Man enters into the writing process with his own values and purposes, his desire to shape the writing toward some significant end. The Author may write only to please–himself or his readers–but the Man is concerned to please and instruct, to communicate something of who he is and how he views his world. Lewis illustrates the process by explaining that his own fairy stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, originated as a series of mental images that began connecting themselves into story-lines. But then, as the narratives began to take shape, Lewis saw that they could be used to imaginatively express the central truths of Christianity in a fresh way.

This dual emphasis on the Author and the Man involved in the creation of fantasy may seem only a slight variation on Tolkien’s views, but it explains in large part the markedly different character of the two men’s work–as well as the fact that Tolkien was never “able to enter into full sympathy” (his own words) with Lewis’s fantasy stories. (Carpenter 227) Though Tolkien certainly expressed his values implicitly in The Lord of the Rings, he affirmed the Author’s act of sub-creation as an end in itself. Lewis, however, agreed that a writer can’t even begin without the Author’s urge to create, but felt he shouldn’t begin without the Man’s desire to communicate his deepest sense of himself and his world.

It seems to me that these two differing views are still at the heart of the question: What constitutes Christian fiction?

For an example of actual Christian fantasy, consider reading the CSFF Blog Tour’s April feature, The Begotten by Lisa T. Bergren. Read about the book and author from these fine bloggers:

Brandon Barr/ Justin Boyer/ Jackie Castle/ Karri Compton/ CSFF Blog Tour/ Gene Curtis/ D. G. D. Davidson/ Jeff Draper/ April Erwin/ Karina Fabian/ Beth Goddard / Marcus Goodyear/ Todd Michael Greene/ Michael Heald/ Christopher Hopper/ Joleen Howell/ Jason Joyner/ Kait/ Carol Keen/ Mike Lynch/ Terri Main/ Margaret/ Melissa Meeks/ Pamela Morrisson/ John W. Otte/ Rachelle/ Steve Rice/ Ashley Rutherford/ Chawna Schroeder/ Rachelle Sperling/ Stuart Stockton – welcome back, Stuart! 😉 / Steve Trower/ Speculative Faith/ Robert Treskillard/ Laura Williams/ Timothy Wise

*bold type indicates bloggers who have already posted about the book.

CSFF Blog Tour – Auralia’s Colors, Day 3

Yesterday I posted a rather lengthy excerpt from Auralia’s Colors author Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog Looking Closer when he was discussing The Golden Compass. Today I want to give my reaction, starting with the lines I emphasized:

Christians have become so suspicious of fairy tales, fantasy, and imagination that we have created an environment in which it is very unlikely that we will see another imagination like Tolkien and Lewis emerge.

I view this kind of rhetoric as self-fulfilling prophecy. Jeffrey Overstreet is a respected voice in Christian circles in the discussion of culture, and here he is saying Christians are suspicious of fairy tales, fantasy, and imagination. What editor, then, is going to rush right out and acquire a book that is what the professionals declare to be the very thing Christians are suspicious of?

And without editors acquiring fairy tales, fantasies, and books of imagination, how can we possibly see anything like Tolkien or Lewis emerge?

First, I argue that “Christians” are not suspicious of the imaginative. Perhaps a vocal minority has been in the past, with a few still tenaciously clinging to that view. In my comment to an earlier post, I identified these as people who are perhaps legalists (and therefore not really Christians) or perhaps Christians coming from a lifestyle they fear to fall into again (such as the occult). There are others too, those that have not been introduced to good fiction. It could be because of their schooling, their family culture, or the lack of child-friendly books when they were growing up. There also might be those who have never been taught to look for depth in fiction.

The point is, these are not ALL Christians. From time to time on this blog I have pointed to evidence that Christians, just like others in the culture are engaging works of fantasy—books or films. The most telling statistics are the Barna Group report from several years ago showing that 76 percent of Christian kids from the ages of 14 to 18 (I think) had seen or read Harry Potter. How much might that figure have grown by now?

In reality, all we need to look at is the sales success of the Narnia books to know that Christians do want quality fantasy. A half a century after they were published, these books are still some of the most loved and top many best-selling lists.

Why would anyone think Christians at large are suspicious of imaginative literature as a body in light of these facts and a growing number of others I could cite (though I’d be repeating myself ad nauseam 😉 )?

The next critical issue, I think is, What does it take for an imagination like Lewis or Tolkien to emerge? For one thing, these men were well read. They were also scholars. That says to me that they understood the underpinnings of a story, they knew how language works, they had a grasp of history, and they were more than conversant in theology. In other words, the worlds they created were not accidents of their imagination. They didn’t employ some kind of stream of consciousness writing, and from that emerged this intricate fantasy, with a Christ-like super-protagonist.

I’m overstating Mr. Overstreet’s position to make a point. Certainly Lewis and Tolkien, by their own words, did not write allegory. However, that does not mean they wrote without intention or purpose. Allegory is not the only way to show spiritual truths. Instead, both classic writers employed types and symbols, something I suggest Mr. Overstreet himself does, though he seems to be denying it in the excerpt I quoted.

Now you know why I want to have a conversation with him. 😀

For actual discussion about our featured book, Auralia’s Colors, spend some time at these other blogs:

Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer Grace Bridges Jackie Castle Carol Bruce Collett Valerie Comer CSFF Blog Tour Gene Curtis (Not on the list posted at CSFF). D. G. D. Davidson Chris Deanne Jeff Draper April Erwin Marcus Goodyear Andrea Graham Jill Hart Katie Hart Timothy Hicks Christopher Hopper Creative contest underway. (Not on the list posted at CSFF). Heather R. Hunt Becca Johnson Jason Joyner Kait Karen Carol Keen Mike Lynch Margaret Rachel Marks Shannon McNear Melissa Meeks (Holding a book give-away). Mirtika or Mir’s Here Pamela Morrisson Eve Nielsen John W. Otte John Ottinger Deena Peterson (Holding a book give-away). Rachelle Steve Rice Cheryl Russel Ashley Rutherford Hanna Sandvig Chawna Schroeder James Somers Rachelle Sperling Robert Treskillard (Not on the list posted at CSFF). Donna Swanson Steve Trower Speculative Faith Jason Waguespac Laura Williams Timothy Wise

Myths and Legends, Fairy Tales and Fables … Oh, My

Recently I was introduced to the term mythopoeic. I’m trying to understand this. Wikipedia has this to say about the related noun:

The word mythopoeia and description was coined and developed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930’s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes, into fiction. Mythopoeia is also the act of making (creating) such mythologies.

So which is it—integrating traditional mythology or creating mythology? Can you even do the latter? 8)

My online dictionary defines mythology as the following:

a collection of myths, esp. one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition

The same dictionary also defines myth like this:

a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

So can you create a “traditional story”? Doesn’t “traditional” suggest that this is a shared set of beliefs, not exclusive to one generation?

Would a newly created myth be one, then, that retained the traditional beliefs within the framework of a new imaginative tale?

And here’s the real question: how is “myth” different from “fantasy”? And what about fables, fairy tales, legends—what differentiates one from another? How are these different from just plain old fiction?

Because I’m a fantasy writer, I’m curious about all this. In some ways, it seems to me, myth is at the heart of all fiction. The roots, certainly, of all fiction include oral story telling, which many scholars believe was first the account of actual events and later the embellishment of actual events.

The interesting thing is that a well-told story feels so real, it’s nearly impossible to tell if it actually happened or if it lacked any basis in fact. Often times the “give-away” is the presence of the supernatural. Or perhaps, whatever is unknown today.

I guess I’ll give a stab at how I see these different forms. In reverse order:

Fables. A fable seems to exist to make a point, to teach a lesson. I think of the story about the little boy who cried wolf as an example. Fables often use talking animals. An example of a novel might be The Story of the Dun Cow.

Fairy Tales. Written for children, fairy tales involve imaginary beings or places and also teach lessons, though perhaps less pointedly so. Famous fairy tales are numerous. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes to mind. A novelist telling fairy tales might be Shannon Hale (Goose Girl, The Princess Academy).

Legends. Based on fact but embellished, with numerous beyond-belief additions. King Arthur comes to mind. Not sure if “superhero” stories fit here or not. These seem to rely on considerably more than embellishment.

Myths. These are the stories that involve the supernatural, it would seem. Of old, this would include Beowulf and Odysseus. Novels would include The Lord of the Rings.

So in what classification do these stories fall?

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams
  • The Sixth Sense (I only know about the movie)
  • The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  • Perelandra, C. S. Lewis

OK, we’ll see where this takes us. Not sure if the topic is worth more conversation or not.

For further discussion, see “Fables, Fairy Tales, and Parables” and “Fables and Fantasies.”

Published in: on September 5, 2007 at 12:40 pm  Comments (6)  

Themes, How Obvious Is Too Obvious?

Yesterday I climbed up on my soapbox (some might say, my highhorse 😉 ) and ranted a bit about the current trend in Christian fiction to avoid crafting themes.

Interestingly, over at Speculative Faith Jason Waguespack began a discussion about Frodo and the Ring, from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In closing he said,

The master certainly continues to keep us talking, eh?

And so he does. So does any master craftsman, because the meaning isn’t so obvious we can dismiss it out of hand. Or accept it as a reaffirmation of our strongly held beliefs without considering what exactly those beliefs are.

I think that’s what Lewis accomplishes in Narnia. Certainly his work is much more allegorical than Tolkien’s, but it still causes the reader to look more deeply.

For example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis portrays the seduction of sin in a fresh way—the lure, the addiction, the deception, the death. Equally so, he protrayed the loving redemptive sacrifice in a new way because he showed a Lion, not a lamb, going to the slaughter. That gave the reader more to ponder, an insight about God to consider.

Maybe “avoiding the obvious” isn’t really the answer to crafting theme well. Perhaps it is “avoiding the easy.”

Is that possible without careful crafting?

Published in: on June 14, 2007 at 11:30 am  Comments Off on Themes, How Obvious Is Too Obvious?  
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